Review: Rose Hsien and Havant Chamber Orchestra’s May Concert

On the day of the Royal Wedding, hundreds of thousands of people thronged the streets of Windsor. Millions saw it on television worldwide. Later that day over 90,000 people packed Wembley Stadium for the FA Cup final, which kept many others glued to the “box”.

Sadly, Havant Chamber Orchestra’s concert at Ferneham Hall that evening was less well attended than it could have been. This was a pity for several reasons. Under the direction of Robin Browning the orchestra was on top form. The soloist was exceptional. And the experimental arrangement of having the orchestra at floor level worked extremely well.

Robin had given considerable thought to the programme. He confided that it was no easy task to match works like symphonies, which usually need larger ensembles, with pieces which are ideal for smaller bands like the HCO. He need not have worried as the programme was well balanced throughout and the orchestra performed the symphony with real gusto.

It was a pleasure to hear Dvorak’s Czech suite in D major with its flowing folk dance rhythms being played with such accuracy and ease. The light and shade were well defined. The conductor’s expressive and graceful style brought out the emerging Czech identity which Dvorak had in mind. The finale was full of strutting bombast and national pride.

The varnish on Rose Hsien’s violin gleamed like it must have done when it first emerged from Carlo Bergonzi’s workshop nearly 300 years ago. The instrument was certainly in the right hands.

Rose performed Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 3 in G with seemingly effortless grace. Her slender forearm held this valuable violin in textbook pose while her nimble fingers sped up and down its fingerboard. She brought out the instrument’s beautiful tone. There wasn’t a strident note to be heard in the upper registers. The lower notes were strong without being gruff. Her trills and double stopping were admirable.

All the while, as he controlled the orchestra, Robin Browning kept his eyes on her in a caring, almost avuncular fashion. One noticeable aspect was that in their pizzicato passages the lower strings were absolutely on the button. This was as much a tribute to Robin’s clear conducting and firm beat as it was to the quality of the musicians. There are no passengers in the HCO one viola player said in the interval. Too true.

Immediately before the start of the Dvorak Romance, one of Amanda Berry’s ‘cello strings slipped out of tune. A tyrannical conductor like Herbert von Karajan would have ordered the unlucky player off the stage. But Robin’s smile and body language signalled to the audience that these things happen, so what. As he made small talk with the leader Brian Howells, Amanda skilfully retuned in double quick time.

Rose Hsien’s performance in the second half was just as good as in the first. She’s known to love Mozart but she showed genuine warmth for Dvorak too. Her quality playing was prefaced by the upper strings opening the Romance with a high, ethereal sound. Once again, the Bergonzi violin’s clear-as-bell tone was a delight to the ear. During the ensuing applause bass player Alan Ham presented Rose with a bouquet of flowers and got a peck on the cheek in return.

The Havant Symphony Orchestra sounded much bigger than it looked during Mozart’s Symphony in D major. The work is referred to as the Prague Symphony because it was premiered there in 1787. The brass, woodwind and timpani gave the string sections added body, lustre and produced a grander, more powerful overall sound. The HCO was punching well above its weight.

Lastly, the orchestra’s position on the floor of the theatre brought it nearer to the audience. Chamber orchestras, as their name implies, played in small or medium-sized salons where the audience was often seated quite close to the musicians. Paintings of Haydn and Mozart’s era sometimes show listeners also standing, bunched together at the back and sides of the room. A wooden floor helped to reflect the sound which was good for the audience and probably also good the players. It’s a shame there weren’t more people there to hear such fine music.

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